I thought I’d write a different kind of post. I’d like to sketch out what I think a church with a strong marriage ministry would look like, and then I’d invite you to share your thoughts, in the hope that this could be a resource page or a springboard for discussion for churches that want to be more intentional about supporting the marriages.
A Strong Marriage Ministry Leverages Marriage Mentors
Pastors should not be the main focus of a marriage ministry. A pastor may not be gifted at counseling, which is OK. After all, Pastors were hired to primarily lead and preach. There are limited pastors at each church. They can’t do all the work.
A strong marriage ministry involves couples from the congregation. If a church is going to support marriages, it needs to find a way to forge relationships where couples can talk about important issues. I believe is the best vehicle for this is mentorship.
- A mentor couple should be a couple whose marriage is strong and has been married at least ten years.
- Marriage mentors are often better equipped for pre-marital counseling than pastors, who may not have the time. It’s often better to talk to a couple than just a pastor.
- Mentors should be trained on how to ask questions that encourage discussion. Most breakthroughs come because the couple is able to talk through issues.
- Mentors are not counsellors. The role of a mentor is not to help couples solve problems but instead to raise important issues for discussion and to guide conversations and prayers. If counseling is necessary, the couple should then be referred elsewhere.
- Mentors do not need to have all the answers; they need to be equipped to ask the right questions.
- The church should set up a system where it’s easy to get a mentor couple if you need one.
Choose Marriage Mentors Based on Relationships, Not Past
We have a tendency to promote leadership that looks one way—Christians their whole life; always chose well; never rebelled; still married to their first spouse.
However, the strongest marriages are not necessarily those that fit the “ideal” Christian mold. If congregation members are to relate to marriage mentors, then there should be some diversity in faith journeys among the mentors. While all should have solid marriages now, it’s OK if some people were not born in the church, and became Christians after a difficult faith journey.
It’s even best if some marriage mentors are blended families. Let’s have the marriage mentors resemble the congregation, rather than assuming that those who “look” the most Christian automatically have the strongest marriages.
A Strong Marriage Ministry Flows From an Authenticity Culture
The culture of a church is passed on, top down. At the church my daughters attend, the senior pastor is very open about some of the mental health battles his family has faced, so the church family can pray for them.
At the last song of the service, those who need extra prayer are always encouraged to come up to the front, without judgment. It’s never seen as a sign of weakness. People will not open up to marriage mentors unless the church does not punish those who admit failings. If churches want to rescue marriages, then people need a safe place to admit when they have problems. If they don’t have that, no one says anything until the marriage implodes.
The more we deal with the messiness of life, the more people can admit problems when things do get messy. If no one can dare admit an issue without appearing strange, then no amount of marriage programs will accomplish much.
Leaders Must Have Strong Marriages Themselves
It’s a biblical principle that one shouldn’t serve on church leadership unless one has strong family relationships at home. If the church wants to send a message that marriage is important, then, it must choose leaders that have good marriages. Even if those couples do not directly take part in marriage mentorship, the leadership of the church must still model good marriages.
- Leader couples should always speak well of each other
- The couples should have no whisperings of impropriety
- The couple should support one another in their giftings, rather than the wife seen as simply an appendage or servant of her husband.
- There must be a “team” feel to every ministry couple.
The latter point is especially important. In churches where women are seen more as servants of their husbands, the divorce rate is far higher than in churches where marriage is seen as more teamwork. Researchers have concluded that this is because women don’t feel entitled to speak up about marriage problems when they first occur, because they believe that to identify issues would be seen as unsubmissive. After years of dysfunctional behaviour, the wives often throw in the towel.
If leaders demonstrate grace and care for one another in a team framework, then church members are more likely to feel free to raise issues when they crop up, rather than letting them fester.
A Church That Supports Marriage Does Not Overburden Those Who are Married
Frankly, those who are involved in church as leaders are often burned out with no time for their families. If the leaders don’t have strong marriages, then they can’t support other people’s marriages. Too many ministries in churches require too much of people in their 30s and 40s.
A church that values marriage will:
- Ensure that no one is expected to be at church activities more than one night a week
- Examine their ministries to make sure that they aren’t “make work” or “make busy” events. Choose only events that feed the community and that reach those outside the church. Lower the scope and expectations of some of those events
- Encourage those in their 50s and 60s to do more of the child care, Sunday school, and nursery ministry to give parents a break
- Host more adult mixer activities, like board game nights or movie nights, rather than always dividing by gender so that couples can do more things together
A Strong Marriage Ministry Supports Couples
Sometimes churches shy away from offering couples’ events because we don’t want single people to feel left out. Yet marriage is the bedrock of families and the community. It is not taking away from single people to sometimes offer something for couples.
A Strong Marriage Ministry Addresses the Tough Topics
What is it that tends to rip apart marriages? Money and sex. Yet few churches address either very well from the pulpit.
Before we blame pastors for this, let me say that I don’t think much of this should be addressed from the pulpit. There are children and teens in church; single people; divorced people.
While sex can be addressed in general ways, you can’t get nitty gritty on a Sunday morning. There is a time and place, and that is neither the time, nor the place, for anything that explicit.
With the money issue, too, what people really need is practical help on managing debt and using credit cards. Those sorts of things aren’t handled well from the pulpit, either. You need a workshop. What I would suggest is that the church go out of its way to make resources available on tough topics, remembering that if the church doesn’t address them, the world will fill the void.
- Encourage Bible study groups to do a study on a tough topic
- Encourage membership to sites like Covenant Eyes, which allows accountability and filtering for computers, phones and tablets to help prevent porn addictions
- Download Covenant Eyes’ book Fight Porn in Your Church, and have all leaders read it
- Share through social media, Pinterest boards, men’s and women’s Facebook pages, or newsletter lists great articles about sex, marriage, money, and other issues
- Host financial planning seminars and good financial management seminars. Have debt counsellors available for couples who need help
A Strong Marriage Ministry Is Focused on Wholeness, Not Marriage
Finally, a strong marriage ministry is focused on God’s heart for us—that we all be transformed into the likeness of His Son. A strong marriage ministry is not focused on making sure that all marriages stay intact.
That may seem like a loaded statement. But where I see churches err most often is that they are so scared that a marriage will fall apart that they fail to call people to wholeness.
Churches must be able to identify toxic things that will destroy a marriage—porn use, addictions, emotional, verbal, physical, or sexual abuse. When these issues pop up, the emphasis must be on healing these issues, not healing the marriage. True relational healing can only happen once the underlying toxic things have been properly dealt with. But we’re often too scared to deal with toxic issues because they’re so huge and they threaten the marriage. Instead we try to paper over them.
Churches must be better at supporting those in difficult marriages and calling sinners to repentance. Not every marriage problem is a communication problem. Yet we often treat them as such—telling people to learn each other’s love language or to learn to talk more. Some problems are caused by a huge sin, and those problems are often one-sided. Not every marriage issue has two parties at blame.
Until churches can start calling a spade a spade and calling people to something more, while supporting the hurting spouse, no marriage ministry will ever be effective because you will be undermining the authenticity of your witness.
How Strong is Your Marriage Ministry?
If you’re talking about this article as a leadership community, here are some questions to ask. Rate each question on a scale of 1-5, which will give your church a score out of 75. This may provide some insight on where your efforts should first focus as you grow a strong marriage ministry.
- Does our church have “marriage mentors”?
- Do the couples that we believe have strong marriages all fit that “ideal Christian” mold? Could we be missing some strong marriages because we have preconceived notions of what a strong marriage will look like?
- Is the weight of marriage ministry resting primarily on our pastor?
- Do those struggling with pornography in our church have an obvious, well-advertised place to get help?
- If a couple needed marriage help, or a person wanted an accountability partner, is there an easy way to access that help?
- Looking at our church leadership, including the board(s), paid staff, and ministry coordinators, how overburdened are they? How are their marriages?
- Is teamwork a hallmark of the marriages among our church leadership?
- Do leaders in our church regularly speak well of their spouses and encourage their spouses’ spiritual giftings?
- Looking at those aged 25-45 in our church, how much of the practical, hands on responsibility for ministries falls on their shoulders? How much falls on those aged 45-65? Is this a healthy balance?
- Do we have a culture where people can safely admit that they are struggling without judgment?
- Does our church handle sex in a healthy way? Do our small groups, couples’ ministries, or single-sex study groups feel comfortable talking about it?
- If couples are having major debt issues, do they know where to go for help?
- Have we had low-cost, affordable marriage events (either couple events or single-sex teaching events) at our church in the last year?
- Do we have a network of trained Christian counsellors to whom we can refer couples in trouble?
- Do we regularly refer couples who are dealing with toxic issues, rather than trying to deal with issues of that magnitude when we may not be trained for it?
What works at your church with marriage ministry? What doesn’t? Let’s help each other!
For a downloadable guide of these criteria, along with an assessment tool to see how your church ranks on marriage ministry, head over to Sheila’s original post.
Sheila Wray Gregoire has been married for 25 years and happily married for 20! She loves traveling around North America with her hubby in their RV, giving her signature “Girl Talk” about sex and marriage. She’s written eight books about sex and marriage.